For myriad problem spots in yard and garden, phlox has got you covered.
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The waves and eddies of creeping phlox that swirl through every other Connecticut garden—or so it seems—vividly bring to mind a man who lived more than 200 years ago but whom I feel I know well, John Bartram. America’s first botanist, Bartram discovered the species phlox subulata, in the wild. In fact, if you ever hear me complaining about the trials and tribulations of being a weekend gardener—of working from sunup to sundown every Saturday and Sunday, of going back to New York with aching back and stiffened hands (not to mention fingernails that won’t come clean even after a soaking in bleach)—cut me short. All you have to do is mention the early plant hunters like John Bartram, those horticultural pioneers who lived—and often died—finding and bringing back plants from around the world that we now take for granted in our gardens. That will bring home the blunt truth: The hardest work you and I do—or can envision doing—is a piece of cake compared to their labors.
Bartram was a farmer who lived on the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia. The father of 11, he got into botany to augment his income (after all, he had to feed all those kids) by collecting seeds and sending them by the boxload to England, where they were sold for five guineas apiece, maybe a thousand times more than he was paid for them. Totally self-taught, he introduced more than 200 species of American plants to cultivation over 30 years of arduous exploration in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains, in the Catskills, in Georgia and Florida. Most of his discoveries, sadly, were originally credited not to him but to the botanists and horticulturists to whom he sent his findings.
Not a skilled writer, he published only one book—one that his friend, the great Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, said did him more harm than good, because he did not put into it “a thousandth part of the great knowledge” he had acquired. Bartram did, however, pour out his heart and his findings in his letters, and after he died (after repeated bouts of malaria), the letters were made public and won him such acclaim that by now “his every footstep has been traced by assiduous American scholars” (The Plant Hunters, by Alice M. Coates, McGraw Hill, 1969).
Although many, many of the seeds and plants Bartram collected have become Connecticut regulars (snakeroot, rhododendron maximum, ostrich fern, iris cristata, climbing Dutchman’s Pipe, Leucothoe racemosa, several native lilies and, his most famous tree find, the beautiful Franklinia alatamaha, which he named after one of his heroes, Benjamin Franklin), it’s phlox subulata, otherwise known as creeping phlox, mossy phlox and moss pink, that we’re inescapably aware of this season. In fact, with all due respect to the late Mr. Bartram, I could do without much of it—namely, the torrid color combinations of magenta, crimson and purple that surely must make him turn over in his grave.